Some communications are critical. Critical communications simply must get through to their intended recipients, and there must be evidence that the people who were supposed to send the critical communications fulfilled their responsibilities. If some of your communications are critical, and if you work in a politically toxic environment — such as a blame-based culture — you're at risk. If one of your critical communications doesn't get through, or if the intended recipient falsely denies receiving it, you might find yourself in deep yogurt. To learn how to manage this risk, check out this fable.
Let's suppose that you're a member of a team engaged in something really important, and risky too. It's so important, and so risky, that your team must work night and day on a weekend to get it done. That way, if something goes wrong, the unfortunate consequences — and they will be truly unfortunate — will affect a minimum number of people, and do a limited amount of damage to the organization. And if necessary, there will be time to revert the system to its original state before work resumes on Monday morning.
And let's further suppose that your organization, and its leadership, is more dysfunctional than most. They aren't setting new records for evil ruthlessness, but they're pretty serious about trying to set those records. It's an unpleasant place to work, and the political machinations are pretty nasty.
Yuck. You're planning to leave, but you haven't yet.
So, OK. Victor, the VP responsible for the system your team is "improving," didn't see the need to be on site during the weekend surgery, but he left word with Ariel, the team lead, to contact him if anything goes wrong. When things did go wrong, Ariel texted status to Victor. Victor didn't respond, so Ariel called him, as Victor had instructed. Ariel got routed to voicemail, and left a message. Twice.
Ariel's message was, "Things didn't go as we hoped. The system did come up, but it can't talk to any of the databases, so we decided to revert to the initial state. We expect that we'll be back up by Sunday afternoon."
Seemed reasonable to Ariel and the team, but not to Victor. Late on Saturday, he wrote a castigating email message to the team, telling them that they gave up too easily, and that they should have called him when he didn't respond to the text message.
At this Some suggestions for managing the
risks of critical communications if you
work in a toxic culture, or if someone
in your work life is ruthlesspoint, your boss heard about what was happening, and texted you asking whether you had called Victor as he had instructed. You told him Ariel had called Victor. But now Victor denies it, at least by implication. What a mess. It's your word against Victor's, and against Victor, in this toxic culture, your word isn't worth much. What could you have done differently?
Here are some suggestions for managing the risks of critical communications if you work in a toxic culture, or if someone in your work life is ruthless.
- Mitigate critical communication risk in text messages
- Include in your text message three items: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a note saying that you'll be sending this same content by email; and (3) a note saying that you'll by contacting the recipient(s) by telephone, at all numbers he, she, or they have provided, to communicate the same content. And if multiple people need to be informed, send the message to all of them at once. (If you don't know how to send texts to multiple people here's a tutorial for iPhone. Android is similar. Try it before you need it.)
- We do most of our texting using smartphones, where the user interfaces for message creation and message editing are a little cumbersome. On a smartphone, composing a text message of this complexity can be a bit inconvenient. Use your computer instead, if you can send text messages from your computer.
- Mitigate critical communication risk in email messages
- Use the same approach in email that you used for the text message. Include in critical email messages three items: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a note saying that you've already sent this same content by text message; and (3) a note saying that you'll by contacting the recipient(s) by telephone, at all numbers he, she, or they provided, to communicate the same content. Again, if multiple people need to be informed, send the message to all of them at once.
- Whichever device you used for the text message, if you can send email from that device, you can copy the text message to a new email message, do a few edits, and send it off easily.
- But if you use a computer for these communications, to save time in the actual event that you need to send a critical communication, you can prepare both the text message and the email message in advance in template form, omitting perhaps the actual content you would need to communicate. If you prepare the template messages in advance, though, don't prepare them in the text messaging or email apps — the templates might be sent to the recipient(s) by accident. Instead, prepare the messages in a text editor document and copy them from there to the respective messaging apps when you need them.
- Mitigate critical communication risk in voicemail
- Finally, there are the telephone messages. Possibly your intended recipient(s) will actually pick up the phone when you call, but otherwise you might need to leave voicemail. In either case, since this is a critical communication, don't try to make it up as you speak. Read it from a prepared script. This message, like the previous two, has three elements: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a comment to the effect that you've already sent this same content by text message; and (3) a comment to the effect that you've already sent this same content by email.
- If you're speaking directly to the recipient, prepare for interruptions. He or she might ask for more details than you intended to leave in voicemail. Provide some detail, but never more than you know with certainty. And remember to convey the information about your previous email and text messages.
- If you need to leave a voicemail message, include at the end your name, email address, and phone number. Provide each one twice to give your recipient(s) a chance to confirm what he or she heard the first time.
- Avoid naming names
- Assuming that you work in a toxic or blame-based culture, naming names in any of these messages is probably unwise. For example, don't say, "Fred advised me that the system will be back up by noon, if all goes well." Even though you added the escape hatch, "if all goes well," naming Fred specifically sets him up as a target if the system isn't back up by noon. Instead say, "I've been advised that …" or "The experts on the team believe …"
All of this multiple messaging might seem a bit extreme, and it is, if all you're trying to do is communicate the content. But if you work in a toxic culture, where you're likely to be falsely blamed for failing to send a critical communication, communicating the content isn't the sole purpose of this strategy. It's not even the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to deter others from plausibly claiming that you didn't try to communicate critical content in a timely fashion. The strategy above leaves so many breadcrumbs that any potential blamer must consider the possibility that he or she will be caught in a lie by claiming that you didn't communicate as required. Deterring a lie is far more effective than refuting a lie.
Finally do what you can to get out of the snake pit. Finding another job isn't always easy, and it's sometimes impossible. But recognize that the culture of the organization is the real cause of the need to manage critical communication risk to this extreme extent. Unless you're responsible, as part of your job, for shaping that culture, problems like this — and worse — will recur for the indefinite future. The only real fix, from your perspective, is an exit. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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